what we read: sample sort-of-review of Before the Fire by Sarah Butler

I’ve titled this post a sort-of review because I really want this book club to inspire the enjoyment of reading above anything else. This is not an exercise in literary criticism. If you want to indulge in a bit of that then by all means, I’d be interested to hear. But it’s not supposed to be the purpose of any discussion we have. Your comments can be as simple as, “I liked it, it was funny.” or “I didn’t like it, it was hard to follow.”

I have come up with some prompts because it can be hard to know what to say when asked, “what did you think?” You generally think a lot of things about a piece of writing with that many words in it and it can be hard to access all those thoughts.

The prompts are:

Best bit
Worst bit
What I learned about the world…
How has my perception of the world changed?


So, here is an example of how I might answer these prompts for a novel I read recently. If you’re still doubting whether you will be able to bring something to the discussion, hopefully you will no longer.

Before the fire.jpg

The Metro review described this novel as “important”, and I can see why.

It is about a teenage boy (Stick) from a working-class family. He is a boy on the verge of becoming a man as he is about to turn 18. Stick and his best friend are planning a road trip to Spain to escape their Manchester estate. But the day before they are due to leave, Mac is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets stabbed and killed. The novel tells the story of Stick’s rage and grief, just at the time of the 2011 riots breaking out across London, and then further afield.

Best Bit

The picture of what it is like to be a teenager in our modern world is powerfully insightful. One scene has Stick standing in Manchester city centre describing how everyone is rushing around as if “whatever they were doing was important” (p. 124). It makes him feel “desperate” and like he could cry. He is constantly asked what he is going to do with his life after his trip and his Dad sets up an opportunity in his company for Stick to sell windows. He was quite happy doing labour for a builder. It made me think of an article I’ve read about how telling your child they can be anything they want to be can actually be a negative thing. Because it creates pressure. Perhaps young people need to hear more of, “you can do whatever and earn whatever, just work hard and be honest.”

Worst Bit

There wasn’t a worst bit in terms of content or craft and that doesn’t have to be how this question is answered.

I’m not a mother of teenagers… yet. So I don’t know how to handle one, and I’m sure I won’t when I have one either. But I have to say, almost the best and worst bit of this novel, was realising how hard it is to be a teenager. How hard it can be to find a decent role model. How hard it can be to feel like you have a voice in the world. How hard it can be when people let you down and don’t seem to know how to be honest with you about it. Or how to apologise. Or how to listen.

What I learned about the world

It is strangely disconnected at times. Young people don’t always know how to express themselves. So the opportunity to just vent at society and at life arises, and they are jumping on the bandwagon without hesitation and behaving with sheer depravity in an instant.

Justice was done and that was appropriate.

But did anyone listen? Like, really listen?

How has my perception of the world changed

My perception of teenagers has altered, I guess. I have a richer empathy for them and for these formative years that carry so much weight of expectation and decisions that shape their future. They observe, understand and absorb so much. Including your love. They just don’t say much of it out loud sometimes.

I spent the evening with a bunch of young people from my church and was relieved to see them together, knowing that they had positive influences in their friends as well as the older people in the room. I know also that if any of them have the misfortune of experiencing grief at a young age, they will have a group of friends that will offer them words of hope, rather than a cup of mushroom tea.


So there’s my review! It’s not lengthy or in-depth so if you’ve no lengthy or in-depth comments to add to the discussions, don’t fret. Just say what you want to say about it.

I’m hopping around with excitement about book one discussions.

I’m not really, (that’s a metaphor by the way – see I do know some stuff).

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